Yinka Shonibare is a post-colonial provocateur in the best sense. The Anglo-Nigerian artist uses pseudo-African cloth, headless mannequins and humor to deconstruct stereotypes about race, class and culture.
His installations include dames dressed for a Venetian masked ball in gowns of humble wax-print cotton. Princelings chase after fox and hounds wearing 18th-century hunting coats in African-accented batik. "Scramble for Africa" offers 14 animated negotiators seated around a table, each dressed in a coat of exotic color and motif.
The bold, multipatterned textiles convey ethnicity to a cliche. But ambiguity is stitched into each seam: The so-called African cloths that Shonibare buys are Dutch-designed copies made in British factories using an Indonesian technique. In the 19th century, such textiles were shipped to Africa and became wildly popular on the Gold Coast, where many people now assume they originated. In the 21st century, the prints are celebrated and defaced simultaneously in the artist's most subversive works. The joke is on us.
"It is important that I don't go to Africa to buy them," he says, "so that all African exotic implications remain fake."
The National Museum of African Art offered a rare glimpse of Shonibare's irony in 2001. The Studio Museum in Harlem gave him a one-man show the following year. By 2004, the artist, who lives in London, was a finalist for the Tate Modern's Turner Prize.
There is unfortunately no sighting anytime soon in Washington, but thanks to the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, it will be possible to pick up the thread.
Shonibare has curated a special exhibition of articles from the Cooper-Hewitt's permanent collection, which will open Oct. 7 in the museum's Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery. A theme of transport underlies his selection of a vintage birdcage, posters of flying machines and an advertisement of a man riding an ostrich, all of which share his whimsical spirit.
Shonibare's theme plays off his own experience of migration -- he was born in 1962 London to Nigerian parents and spent his childhood in Nigeria before moving back to London at 17 to study fine art. Images of dressed mannequins on the Web site of the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London (www.stephenfriedman.com) suggest Shonibare could have had a career in fashion.
The highlight of his effort at the Cooper-Hewitt will be the creation of a homage to Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, the eccentric sisters who founded the decorative arts institution. Their travels and cultural mission have inspired him to produce "outrageous sculptures" 12 feet tall, in which the sisters are elevated on stilts, wearing 19th-century dresses made of pseudo-African textiles. And headless, of course.
"Perhaps they would find my irreverent act vulgar and utterly unsuitable," he writes in the exhibition text.
But he anticipates that the sisters, and no doubt visitors, can be won over with an appreciation of textiles and a "sense for fashion and for the absurd."
Yinka Shonibare Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection is on view from Oct. 7 to May 7, 2006 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 E. 91st St., New York, 212-849-8300, www.cooperhewitt.org.